BWW Reviews: FIESTA, Trafalgar Studios, February 8 2013

By: Feb. 09, 2013
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Alex Helfrecht's adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises opens in Paris and ends in Pamplona, where complex human relationships blister under the heat of the Spanish sun. Forcing the novel's big characters into the small space of the Trafalgar Studios is not easy, but Helfrecht, who also directs, translates Hemingway's voice into the language of live theatre brilliantly: physical performances and live music conjure up all the ex-pat decadence of the 1920s, and tell a truly gripping story.

Hemingway was fascinated by bullfighting. In The Sun Also Rises (his first novel, published in 1926), the ritualised dance of cruelty and physical pleasure becomes the emotional centre of a plot driven by dysfunctional characters. The glamorous divorcée Lady Brett Ashley (Josie Taylor) from England has tracked down American journalist Jake Barnes (Gideon Turner) in Paris, where he is staying with his tennis partner Robert (Jye Frasca) - an irritating third wheel and perpetual outsider. Jake and Lady Ashley met during the war when she was his nurse, and were lovers, but much has happened to them in the intervening years, and whatever Lady Ashley's intentions in rekindling the old flame, the shared future they once hoped for now seems unlikely.

Three-piece jazz trio, Trio Farouche - regulars on the London jazz scene and resident band at the Cannes Film Festival last year - create a lively soundtrack, in surround sound. The percussionist is tucked away in one corner, embedded in the audience, while the double bassist and saxophonist roam about. They give the show a lush richness that you don't often find in black box theatres, not just through their playing but also through their physical presence. Their interaction with the cast is stylish and understated: they stand in as street performers, discretely accept a bribe or chat quietly to a character in the background. It gives the staging an extra dimension.

The plot is deceptively simple. The real power of the play lies in its sophisticated portrayal of human feelings. Josie Taylor is a compelling Lady Ashley, whose vulnerability beneath the promiscuous, leggy exterior is utterly believable. The uncomfortable mix of outward debauchery and repressed pain, typical of the generation who lived through the First World War, is rendered brilliantly by the three main actor, while Jack Holden is an excellent Pedro Romero, the young matador. Famed for his masterful technique and elegant in his shiny trousers, Romero makes his first appearance as an emblem of the fight - a silent, poised figure - but the cliché dissipates as soon as he speaks, and Holden gives an amusingly naturalistic portrayal of the seventeen-year-old innocent, caught up in the chaotic ex-pat world.

Fiesta is an exuberant play and an excellent adaptation. The live jazz band and colourful costumes enrich some lovely performances and bring Hemingway's novel alive, conjuring up the spirit of the time superbly.


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